Burning trash powers Michigan cities, fuels debate

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By ALEX MITCHELL

Capital News Service

LANSING—While some don’t consider burning trash as green, Michigan is exploring waste-to-fuel plants as an alternative energy source.

Waste-to-energy plants, like this one in Baltimore, are new to Michigan, but are already proving divisive. Photo: spike55151 (Flickr)

The Senate Committee on Natural Resources recently heard testimony concerning waste-to-fuel facilities to determine if more of these plants could benefit Michigan, but some environmental advocates are not sure building these facilities is the best path to take.

The committee heard testimony supporting waste-to-fuel from Ellie Booth, director of state and government relations for Covanta Energy Corporation, the largest owner and operator of waste-to-fuel facilities in the United States, Europe and China.

Landfill space is finite and trash disposal is always an issue, Booth said.

Booth’s company operates only one such plant in Michigan, the Covanta Kent Inc. waste-to-fuel facility, which is owned by Kent County and operated by Covanta. The plant receives trash from Grand Rapids and surrounding communities and burns it to produce steam or electricity. Anything that can be recycled is removed before burning and safe waste is then burned. Waste that cannot be recycled or burned is sent to a landfill.

The Kent County facility was constructed in 1990 on a 20-year bond that was paid off last year, which saved the county from creating a new landfill, said Bill Allen, Kent County waste to energy division director. Energy from waste facilities do not emit methane, a greenhouse gas that is emitted from landfills.

The facilities do emit carbon dioxide, but these emissions have half the greenhouse effect of the methane created by placing an equal amount of waste in a landfill, according to a 2004 study by the International Solid Waste Association.

“Last month we processed our 4 millionth ton of solid waste,” Allen said. “We have sold to the grid over 2 billion kilowatt hours and it supplies our in-house power need.” The plant provides energy to the Grand Rapids area.

“We are very proud that we have been designated a clean corporate citizen by the state,” Allen said. “The demands to meet that status are very rigorous and require constant monitoring on our part.”

An energy–to-waste plant uses air-monitoring technology to check for harmful emissions every three minutes, according to Booth.

The United States lags behind Europe in waste-to-fuel facilities. There are nearly 400 energy from waste plants in Europe while Michigan has only the Kent County facility that could be considered on par with those in Europe in terms of pollutants released and energy output, Booth said. Sweden gets nearly half its heat from municipal waste.

But the Michigan Environmental Council would like to see more effort concentrated on recycling.

“We are not big fans of burning trash for a variety of reasons,” said Hugh McDiarmid, communications director for the council. “Even if they do meet the standards it is still a fairly polluting process.”

The environmental council supports a reduction in waste through recycling and these facilities try to recycle in the beginning of the process, but don’t do a good enough job, McDiarmid said.

“A bigger issue is if companies are burning trash and are dependent on large volumes of trash, we think that competes at a certain level with better options, like recycling,” he said. “In Detroit we are engaged very heavily in trying to find a better way to deal with Detroit’s trash, but it is clear that the incinerator competes with recycling programs.”

Detroit’s incinerator creates nearly 68 megawatts of energy an hour and was once owned by Covanta, but it has been a constant point of contention for the city since its construction in the 80s due to its struggle to meet emission standards.

The state has created too many incentives that so heavily favor other alternative energy sources that not enough people are exploring waste-to-fuel as an option, said Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba and the chair of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources.

“I’m not a big fan of government getting too involved in these issues because I feel that it sometimes creates problems rather than helps problems, but now that we are involved we need to create a fair system,” he said.

The state needs to level incentives that currently favor wind and solar energy so that businesses explore all alternative fuel options, Casperson said.

3 thoughts on “Burning trash powers Michigan cities, fuels debate

  1. Pingback: Burning trash powers Michigan cities, fuels debate « Environmental News Bits

  2. Good technical information is hard to find. In May 1988 the Coalition to Save Hampstead Harbor presented “Report No. 1: A Non-incineration Solid Waste Management and Recycling Plan” to the twon of North Hampstead, NY and the North Hampstead Solid Waste Management Authority. Based on the collection and transport, capitol costs, debt retirement, processing costs and residue disposal, the non-incineration (composting and recycling) approach wins on many counts. A review by the Michigan Toxic Substance Control Commission showed SE Michigan incineration costs to be approx $187 per ton based on the above parameters and the recycling/composting approach to be roughly $77 per ton. Interesting!

  3. Incinerators are just “waste dumps in the sky”. Look at what the Detroit incinerator accomplished: it cost the City hundreds of millions of dollars more than landfilling–it’s one of the reasons Detroit is in such financial straits; it killed any attempt at serious recycling in Detroit–costing hundreds of jobs which could have been created in the recycling industry; and it created some of the worst air quality around Detroit and downwind in Canada. All kinds of toxic materials enter an incinerator. There is no way that all of the batteries, paints, solvents, radioactive smoke detectors, etc. can be screened out of the waste stream when everything is concealed deep inside plastic garbage bags in a mountain of trash.

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